How to Prevent a Loved One with Dementia from Wandering

Bayshore | | Caregiver Support

Wandering is a common behaviour associated with dementia, especially in the middle to late stages of the disease. It is not only a potential safety risk for the person with dementia, it is also very stressful if you are the caregiver. There are a number of strategies that can help reduce the risk of wandering even if you can’t prevent it. However, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Consider your loved one’s unique situation and try to make his or her independence and freedom a priority for as long as possible.

Strategies to reduce the risk of wandering

Tips from Canadian Alzheimer associations[1] and medical professionals[2] suggest the following:

Look for a pattern or underlying cause

  • Keep a diary of when and where your loved one tends to wander. This may give you clues as to what is triggering the behaviour. If they wander at night, perhaps they are hungry or thirsty. Leaving a glass of water or a few crackers by their bed might help.
  • Anticipate the times your loved one may wander, or has wandered before. If they tend to wander at the same time every day or when they are bored, plan meaningful activities to keep them better engaged. If they are searching for a spouse or child, leave a note stating that he or she will be visiting soon to provide reassurance and reduce wandering.

Secure your home

  • Keep objects associated with the outdoors (car keys, jackets, shoes) out of view.
  • If possible, re-locate door locks above eye level or where they can’t be seen.
  • Try disguising doors by decorating or covering them with posters, wall hangings or mirrors.
  • Put up a sign on the door to the outside that says “Stop” or “Do Not Enter”. You can also hang signs to identify rooms in the house, such as on the bathroom door, so your loved one knows where the door leads.
  • Consider purchasing alarms which will alert you when a door or window has been opened. Or simply hang bells on the doorknobs.
  • Consider purchasing door mats that set off an alarm when stepped on. You can also put a dark coloured mat in front of the door. People with dementia may perceive this as a gap or hole and may be reluctant to cross.
  • Use a GPS or other tracking device in bracelets or jewellry that allow you to monitor your loved one. The Alzheimer Society partners with the MedicAlert® Safely Home® program. For an annual fee, participants receive an identification bracelet and you have access to 24-hour support in case of emergency.
  • If feasible, install a fence around your property with secured gates.

Review medications with your loved one’s doctor

  • It may be possible to switch to drugs which are less likely to cause confusion or delusions. As a last resort, prescription medications may be appropriate for some people who wander. Speak to their doctor about the options.

Increase physical activity

  • Regular physical activity can reduce agitation and provide an outlet for pent up energy. Walking with a caregiver or a friend, or spending time outside in a secure area may be a safe option for someone who tends to wander. A supervised walk around the block before dinner may even reduce nighttime agitation.

Set a sleep routine

  • As much as possible, set a regular schedule of going to bed and waking up. Reduce napping during the day and cut out caffeinated drinks.

Alert your neighbours

  • Tell neighbours, nearby businesses and your local police or RCMP detachment about your loved one’s situation. They may be able to recognize if your family member appears disoriented and offer help. Give neighbours a number where you can be reached.

Clothing and personal ID

  • Have your loved one wear bright clothing to make it easier for them to be seen from a distance and easier to spot in a crowd.
  • Make sure your loved one always carry ID. Medical ID jewellry such as a pendant or bracelet is less likely to get misplaced or forgotten. Consider sewing identification into their clothing.

Make a plan in case your loved one goes missing

Having a plan will prepare you in case of an emergency. Here are some things you can do now:[3]

  • Keep a list of people to call on for help. Have telephone numbers easily accessible.
  • Keep a recent, close-up photo and updated medical information on hand to share with police.
  • Be aware of dangerous areas near the home, such as bodies of water, open stairwells, dense foliage, tunnels, bus stops and roads with heavy traffic.
  • Know if your loved one is right or left-handed. Wandering generally follows the direction of the dominant hand.
  • Keep a list of places where your loved one may wander. This could include past jobs, former homes, places of worship or a restaurant.

What to do if your loved one is missing

Despite your best efforts, there is a high likelihood that your loved one could wander away. Three out of five people with dementia will wander. Here’s what to do:

  • Search the area where the person was last seen for no more than 15 minutes.
  • Call 911 and report to the police that a person with dementia is missing. Inform them if they are registered with a Safely Home program. A Missing Persons Report should be filed and the police will begin to search for the individual.
  • Alert friends and neighbours to the situation.
  • Have someone stay at home in case the person returns.

The sooner you ask for help, the sooner your loved one is likely to be found.

If you need extra help to care for a loved one with dementia, we are here for you. Our caregivers are trained and certified in dementia care.